Vegans don’t need to suffer FOMO during the present charcuterie craze, thanks to a company that is making premium plant-based deli meats. Whether you’re missing salami, pate or cracked pepper turkey, you’ll find a vegan alternative from Prime Roots.
The Bay Area-based company uses a fungus called koji as a basis for creating its meaty lineup. Don’t be grossed out — it’s the same fungus you’ve consumed in fermented products like soy sauce, miso and sake. Founders Kimberlie Le and Joshua Nixon tried a variety of fungi and fermentation methods before hitting on their winner. Then called Terramino Foods, they launched in 2017 with a popular koji-based salmon burger. After rebranding in 2022, they introduced a new line of koji-based deli meats that replicate the texture and flavors of the real thing. Consumers can choose from a selection of hams, turkeys, bacon and charcuterie. The truffle pate is a real standout.
Le talked to Inhabitat about what drove her to found Prime Roots and what she hopes her company can do.
Inhabitat: Why were you inspired to create Prime Roots?
Le: Growing up, I used to be a competitive snowboarder. When I would go snowboarding, I went to the same slope year after year. During college, I noticed that the snowfall accumulation was less and less each year. It was devastating to see the effects of climate change happen right before my eyes. That’s when I knew I had to do something that would make a positive impact on the planet.
Inhabitat: What does the name Prime Roots mean to you?
Le: Our star ingredient, koji, can best be described as the “roots” of mushrooms. The word “prime” is indicative of high quality. We wanted a name that represents what we do with our koji, which is to create the highest quality meat alternative meat products.
Inhabitat: How did you figure out how to turn koji into meat?
Le: I grew up making recipes with koji. My mom is a chef, so it’s something that has always been in my culinary toolkit. Koji has been around for thousands of years and is used to make miso and soy sauce. At UC Berkeley, I did a lot of research in microbiology to find ways to solve the problems our food industry faces. When I learned that about 20% of greenhouse gas emissions come from animal agriculture, I knew that there had to be a better way to create a delicious product that didn’t harm the environment. That’s when I realized that koji was something that could be used to recreate the texture and umami-rich flavor of meat, and this process also uses a lot less resources than conventional meat production.
Inhabitat: How did you develop the different flavor profiles of each meat?
Le: We really look at what goes into traditional meat and try to recreate the same delicious flavor with our products. For example, conventional Black Forest ham comes from Germany and uses juniper berries to give it that distinct taste. Naturally, when we decided to make a koji Black Forest ham, we knew we had to use juniper berries. Our goal is to make sure that our products taste and feel similar to their animal-based counterparts so consumers can enjoy all the benefits with none of the guilt associated with meat. We try to honor the traditions of how meat is made. The koji used in our products is umami tasting with a neutral flavor profile, so we can easily recreate any type of meat.
Inhabitat: Where can people buy Prime Roots now, and what is your expansion plan?
Le: Bay Area consumers can currently buy our products at Berkeley Bowl East and West, Rhea’s Deli and both Bi-Rite Markets San Francisco. Our current plan is to continue to work with chefs to incorporate our product into their menus and expand our distribution throughout California and eventually nationwide.
Inhabitat: Tell us about winning the Food & Wine Game Changer’s Award.
Le: Our entire team was thrilled about winning the Food & Wine Game Changer’s award. To work hard in this industry and be recognized by one of the most prestigious food publications is a tremendous honor. After hearing the news that we had won, it only motivated us to work harder and make sure we continue to produce a high-quality product that benefits the planet.
Inhabitat: What else should readers know about Prime Roots?
Le: Be on the lookout for our products hitting more stores in the Bay Area. We also plan on expanding to more restaurants in the future. We make a huge impact with every bite. The process of creating our meats is 90% to 99% more efficient and less wasteful than conventional meat in terms of land use, water use, CO2 emissions, as discovered in a life-cycle assessment of our processes.
Photography by Teresa Bergen